Gophers focus on defense as spring practice opens

Updated: March 23, 2005, 2:12 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Glen Mason has always been a hands-on coach, but he's taking that to another level during spring practice.

"I'm going to teach tackling," the Minnesota Gophers coach said Tuesday on the first day of spring practice. "I don't know if I'll be any good at it, but I'll teach it."

His defense needs all the help it can get.

The Golden Gophers ranked 75th in the nation in total defense last season, routinely missing tackles and giving up big chunks of yards on third-and-long situations.

Not surprisingly, defense is the No. 1 priority heading into the spring.

"We need to make a big improvement on the defensive side of the ball," Mason said. "I was not happy last year. ... We should've collectively played better defense last year, we didn't."

Seven starters return from last year's unit, which has a new coordinator. Incumbent Greg Hudson left to become the defensive coordinator at East Carolina, and Mason promoted David Lockwood from secondary coach to coordinator.

Lockwood was the interim defensive coordinator for Minnesota's 20-16 victory over Alabama in the Music City Bowl, a game in which the defense played much better.

Mason said the two keys to immediate improvement will be pursuit and tackling, both of which were lacking for most of last season. Mason, who has always been more of an offensive coach, took more of an active role in the defense in preparing for the bowl game and it seemed to help.

"The thing that hit me in the face, we were much improved in that area," Mason said. "We exhibited those type of things much better against Alabama than we did in previous part of the year."

Free safety John Pawielski said he'll welcome Mason's increased presence at practice.

"It's good for us," Pawielski said. "When he gets down there, guys work harder."

On offense, the Gophers will continue to do what they do best -- run the ball.

Marion Barber III left early for the NFL, but Laurence Maroney remains in a deep backfield that also includes Amir Pinnix and Gary Russell.

"Will we miss Marion Barber? The answer is yes," Mason said. "He was a great football player for us. But saying that, if we were going to lose a great football player early, and there's one position where we could afford to lose one, it's running back."

Maroney rushed for 1,348 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, but Mason made it clear losing Barber not turn the Gophers' offense into the Laurence Maroney Show.

"As much as we run the football, you need more than one running back," Mason said.

Quarterback Bryan Cupito said he is confident that Maroney can be the man and make things easier on him in his second season as a starter.

"I think he's energized," Cupito said of Maroney. "I know he's got the talent. He can carry the load by himself if he has to."

In all, the Gophers return 15 starters from a 7-5 team, including three on the offensive line, which again figures to be the team's strength. That has Mason optimistic.

"I really like this team," Mason said. "It's because of the players and how they go about their business and handle themselves."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press